To EPIRB or not to EPIRB

jefffski

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Jan 2, 2014
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I'm interested in your opinions.

Just to be clear, an EPIRB is a one-time use device to alert authorities of an immediate need for a rescue.

I am an ocean canoeist. My partner and I have paddled in the BGI, Deer Group, Broughtons, Hakai Luxvbelis (Great Bear), Sechelt Inlet and Desolation Sound for over ten years without incident. We carry a waterproof floating VHF radio, handheld GPS, deck compass, handheld compass and marine charts. We're considering adding an EPIRB to our gear.

We've never capsized and typically travel near shore in good weather and calm seas, though we've encountered swells as big as two metres. We also have made longer crossings (i.e. BGI to Deer), however, these are always under ideal conditions.

Thinking about different scenarios where we might need help or a full on rescue, our VHF radio is sufficient for any emergency calls from land. If we were in the water, could not reach land and couldn't re-enter the boat, making a coherent radio broadcast might not work once water got into the mic. Enter the EPIRB. But still, I wonder if, in those extreme conditions, we were in the water and could not get back into the boat, would one of us be able to activate the EPIRB, which takes both hands, and hold it aloft as required?

Another issue is I'd have to attach it to the outside of the PFD, as all the pockets are full. My partner loves her PFD, but it has no pockets big enough even for a tiny EPIRB. I don't like gear hanging off my PFD because it's more likely to get damaged.

Thoughts?
 

a_c

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I guess it's like insurance: you don't need it......until you do.

I bought an Ocean Signal PLB1 this summer; if I get the expected lifespan out of it (6-7 years) the cost works out to about $5 a month. I spend enough on gear, trips and do-dads that it doesn't make sense to cheap out on something that might save your life. It's a pretty cheap insurance policy, IMO.

I hope I never need it and I don't plan to ever use it. But if I do need it, I'm sure I'll be glad it's there.

One more layer of safety is never a bad thing. What's your life worth?
 

JohnAbercrombie

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A quick online search on "kayaker rescued with PLB" will help with your decision.
If my PFD didn't have room for my PLB I'd get a different PFD. The Kokatat MsFIT has a small inside pocket - between the zipper and the buckles - that holds a PLB perfectly.
Or a case/pouch that holds the PLB on a shoulder strap?
 

Peter-CKM

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I suspect you understand this, but I figure it is best to reiterate. The version carried by a person is called a PLB (personal locator beacon), and is much smaller than the baot mounted EPIRB. The functions are similar in your case (though many EPIRBs are set to trigger on capsize, which wouldn;t be good for someone who rolls a kayak).

PLBs are waterprooof and sealed, so would do fine attached outside on a PFD. But the attachment method may not be as rugged as you'd like, so you might need to look into a case/pouch, as John suggested. I would also suggest adding a lnyard/leash so that if it does fall off, it is still tied on. I leash pretty much everything tthat is in my pockets.

I have and feel it is well worth it as insurance. For most of my paddles (where I am in areas with lots of others boaters), the PLB stays in a dsmall dry bag either between my legs or in my day hatch. if I am in more wilderness areas where the VHF is less likely to save me, I stick it in the pocket on the Kokatat water bladder on my back. Be with me if I was separated from the boat, but would take a bit to get at.
 

Tangler

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I followed John's suggestion (usually a good idea) and did a quick google search.
All the examples that came up were of individuals who were rescued in areas that were close to civilization.
I wonder how effective this technology would be if we were in the water in a remote area or whether we are deluding ourselves and trying to make sea kayaking feel safer than it really is (perhaps for other people in our lives?).
 

cougarmeat

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>We've never capsized and typically travel near shore in good weather and calm seas

Though the above might be true, and I would certainly make clothing decisions based on location and "solo vs a buddy" paddling, the decision to carry an emergency signal device isn't one of them. I always have it when on ocean water (but maybe not in a lake).

My Snap Dragon spay skirt has a pocket in the tunnel and a device, The Spot, InReach, or Zoleo, would fit in there. Any of those have an SOS button that could be pressed with one hand, though getting to that button - you wouldn't want to push it accidentally - may take some fiddling.

I like that concept over the PLB because it allows me to communicate my location to folks back home. So the unit is constantly tested. It also takes readily available AA or AAA batteries. I understand all about those devices having to relay a location to S&R rather than a direct call by a PLB, but those "location and message" companies have a vested interest in making sure there are no delays.

Note that if you tuck the device too close, your body may shield it from some satellites. At least that was the case when GPS devices first came out years ago.

I had a friend become concerned because she didn't see my message updates. So she called the local police, who called the Canadian police in Sidney, who called The Spot, who told them my last reading was 200 yards from the Ferry Terminal and I was probably on my way back to Anacortes. That last part was a step too far - an assumption - on the part of the Spot. Because I was having lunch at a cafe and would catch a later ferry on a different route. But they verified that at least someone was pushing the "ok" button every day.

My point is, sometimes it's good to have "I'm here" communication without an all-out call to the cavalry.
 
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kayakwriter

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So I have both my PLB and my VHF on shoulder holsters on my PFD - the idea being that whether I'm using them in the boat or while swimming, their antennas will be in the highest practical places. The VHF is on a self-retracting lanyard; the PLB is on a short fixed-length lanyard that is ordinarily tucked inside its pouch (the lanyard is attached directly to the PFD shoulder daisy chain, so even if the Velcro'd holster tore away, the PLB will remain attached to me).
Ideally, once I'd deployed the antenna and punched the button on the PLB and/or pushed the DISTRESS button on the VHF, I'd be able to tuck them back in their respective holsters. But worst case scenario, I'm incapacitated and unable to complete those actions, the VHF is inherently buoyant and the PLB has its own little foam "lifejacket" that will float it at the surface. Since they're both tethered to me, they'll go wherever I go, conscious or not.
PC080416.JPG
 

AM

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Philip, how old is the batter on that Fast Find? I ask because mine expired in 09/2021 and when I performed the test on it today, I got zero power.

That is one of the advantages of the SPOT/InReach approach, as @cougarmeat indicated above: a rechargeable device that you are testing all the time by sending messages to family just feels reliable.

Cheers,
Andrew
 

alexsidles

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I wonder how effective this technology would be if we were in the water in a remote area or whether we are deluding ourselves and trying to make sea kayaking feel safer than it really is (perhaps for other people in our lives?).
The CAFSAR CH-149 Cormorant helicopters based in Comox have a 860-mile range (1400 km), sufficient to fly from Comox to Prince Rupert and back on a single tank of fuel. There's nowhere on the coast they can't reach you. Long-range coast guard lifeboats are based at Prince Rupert, Bella Bella, Sandspit, Tofino, Port Hardy, and a dozen or so stations throughout the Strait of Georgia. Additional coast guard stations house short-range lifeboats and short-range helicopters.

Unless you're in the high arctic or hundreds of miles out to sea, CAFSAR or the coast guard can get something to you within four hours of tasking.

Coincidentally, Golden and Tipton's Essentials of Sea Survival estimates a survival time of four hours for a "thin adult male" wearing an uninsulated dry suit over lightweight clothes, assuming 12°C water (54°F). So you'll just about make it!

Alex
 

kayakwriter

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Philip, how old is the batter on that Fast Find? I ask because mine expired in 09/2021 and when I performed the test on it today, I got zero power. Cheers,Andrew
Thanks for raising the concern. I'd had the battery professionally replaced several years ago by DBC Marine Safety Systems Ltd. Per the sticker they put on the unit then, that battery expired in October of this year. So I had it replaced again at DBC at that time - the current sticker says the battery is good until February of 2026.
 

chodups

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Thanks for raising the concern. I'd had the battery professionally replaced several years ago by DBC Marine Safety Systems Ltd. Per the sticker they put on the unit then, that battery expired in October of this year. So I had it replaced again at DBC at that time - the current sticker says the battery is good until February of 2026.

I’ll paddle with Philip any day and anywhere that either one of us don’t feel too uncomfortable. He has his kit sorted out with a responsible plan so as to be self-reliant and I know that I would only have to depend on and worry about myself.

I’ve mentioned before that I am “belt and suspenders” prone and, where appropriate, wear accessible VHF, Spot and PLB. Each has a primary purpose that may overlap but doesn’t replace the function of another. I have several PFD’s that I use but my “traveling” PFD” has been chosen for its ability to carry all the crap that I might need if I’m remote and conditions break bad, I have lost use of either arm and am not able to otherwise accommodate my current personal challenges.

My paddling partners and I may share a tarp or some cook gear that qualifies as “nice-to-haves” but we are all self-supported and in case of separation are responsible for carrying our own accessible means of survival. That includes figuring out viable gear choices that serve our needs while not placing the odds of our survival on the gear choices of someone else.
 

kayakwriter

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That is one of the advantages of the SPOT/InReach approach, as @cougarmeat indicated above: a rechargeable device that you are testing all the time by sending messages to family just feels reliable.Cheers,Andrew
I take your point on this too. I don't own a SPOT or InReach, but if I did, I think I'd stick to my current set-up of PLB and VHF on my person, and have the SPOT/InReach accessible at sea in my "glove compartment" or a Pelican minicase secured under (and to) the deck bungies. It'd be good to have as a fallback to the fallbacks, plus, as I always point out in my VHF classes, it's great to have an effectively unlimited range way of communicating a message along the lines of "All well. Lots of food and water, but waiting out storm safely on Gilligan's Island. Will be back two days later than float plan specified."
 

kayakwriter

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I’ll paddle with Philip any day and anywhere that either one of us don’t feel too uncomfortable. He has his kit sorted out with a responsible plan so as to be self-reliant and I know that I would only have to depend on and worry about myself.
Thanks Jon. I'm definitely paddling more slowly and fewer hours per day as I age, but if you could put up with that, I'd be honoured to voyage with you if and when world events permit.

I know that I would only have to depend on and worry about myself. SNIP My paddling partners and I may share a tarp or some cook gear that qualifies as “nice-to-haves” but we are all self-supported and in case of separation are responsible for carrying our own accessible means of survival. That includes figuring out viable gear choices that serve our needs while not placing the odds of our survival on the gear choices of someone else.
The best example of this I ever experienced was on a trip around Cape Scott years ago. Both of us were young, fit and pretty much in our prime as paddlers. We were also both used to solo touring, taking responsibility for ourselves and not having to nursemaid others. We had extensive pre-trip discussions about how to manage that dynamic, given the reality that in the sort of situation off the Cape where one of us was in trouble, the other would very likely have their hands full looking out for themselves. The description we landed on for the trip philosophy was "Paddling alone together." It worked brilliantly: neither of us was shy about expressing our thoughts but also making sure we were leaving room for the other to be heard. We never disagreed about any "go/no-go" decisions and had a fantastic trip.
 

chodups

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I don't own a SPOT or InReach
I carry a Spot so that friends and loved ones can follow along. I guess that it's nice to know that it has a "Help" function but I place very limited value on its ability to bail me out if I might need it. It's a socially acceptable means of communicating and a "nice-to-have" tool.
 

JKA

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I wonder how effective this technology would be if we were in the water in a remote area or whether we are deluding ourselves and trying to make sea kayaking feel safer than it really is (perhaps for other people in our lives?).
"Do you copy? This is kayak one. Do you copy, over? I've got an emergency situation. I'm in a kayak about 30 km from Milford Sound. I need a rescue. My kayak's sinking. Fell off into the sea and I'm going down."

This was the chilling distress call made via VHF by Andrew McAuley on the evening of 9 February 2007, in the Tasman Sea as he attempted to paddle from Tasmania, Australia to Fiordland, New Zealand.

His body was never recovered but his kayak was, complete with a PLB that he had planned to wear tethered to himself at all times!


I have several friends who were at his expected arrival point waiting for him.

They have expressed concern over the expedition's emergency procedures, and the NZ Rescue Coordination Centre made an error in sending the search helicopter to a wrong location, but, none of that would have happened if he had triggered his PLB.

Would he have survived in the water until rescued? Unknown: he was nearing the end of a 1600km, month long trip in a single kayak in simply horrendous seas. His physical reserves must have been seriously depleted, and all the will in the world can't beat the laws of thermodynamics.

To conclude on a grim note, another friend was with Andrew's wife when she was shown the recovered kayak. Despite that evidence, she desperately clung to the hope that he was alive. With no body, the grief cycle was extended.
 
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JohnAbercrombie

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Will bite the bullet and buy one and tether it to my PFD.
Excellent!
In a world of $5 cups of coffee, it's a very reasonable purchase IMO.
I agree with @a_c and others on that.

Not a bad idea to take your PLB or some other SOS device with you when you go for a hike from your camp (or just a hike any time). An acquaintance had a close call after falling between rocks on a solo hike ('just going for a walk over there a ways') away from a kayaking campsite. Fortunately the paddling companions went searching.. On a solo trip it could have been fatal.
 

cougarmeat

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A few points: Unlike most VHF marine radios, the "locators" will give your Lat/Long - that's their job. So you don't have to be able to talk/hear to send your whereabouts. When I checked its accuracy, not only did The Spot pinpoint my location on the dock in the Marina, it also put me in the correct slip. I'm sure the newer VHF radios have some sort of GPS location and/or maybe AIS identification built-in. My "problem" with those is unless you have it on all the time (note, battery management) it will take a while before it locks on a satellite to give your location. Though I had The Spot on all the time I'm in the water; it was not compromising the talk time on the VHF unit,

Also, though the InReach SE+ is rechargeable, I really prefer an AA or AAA battery pack. That's because rechargeables have a "lifetime" - the number of times they can be recharged. And over time, the battery use-life diminishes. For sure, at my age, my "battery life" is probably less than the number of rechargeable times, but I prefer the security of a fresh Lithium battery with a 20-year shelf life.

Yes, there is an assumption (I make it unconsciously) that a person will be able to push the Help button. But usually, hiking or paddling, I'm guessing most "limb" injuries would affect just one appendage (seldom have two dislocations); an arm or a leg. Most important is to have it with you and accessible - whether in a backpack, shoulder harness, or PFD pocket, with one hand (and preferably either hand).

If you consider purchasing a locator, be sure to research the possible payment plans. The vendors are not always forthcoming. I was paying $250/year for TheSpot - which was used only a few weeks out of the year. That inspired me to look at InReach and Zoleo. While looking at their payment plans - usually a small annual fee plus a per-month charge for the months you use it - it turned out TheSpot now has a similar plan. They were happy to collect $250/year rather than let me know, like the other competitive plans, I could pay something like $25/year and a monthly use fee.

I wish I had some definitive good/better/best experience with the three devices to share - that was my intent last summer - but because any ocean experience involves hundreds of travel miles, clustering on ferry boats, and possible border crossings (phew, I'm worn out already), this Virus issue has curtailed a lot of adventure plans. Yeah, I could perform tests in my backyard. But what's the fun in that.
 
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